From staff and wire reports

CORAL GABLES, Fla. — Sen. John Kerry accused President
Bush last night of a “colossal error in judgment” in
ordering the invasion of Iraq. “The world is better off
without Saddam Hussein,” the president shot back in campaign
debate, adding his rival once said so himself.

“I agree with him,” Bush jabbed sarcastically at a
challenger he depicts as prone to flip-flops.

In a 90-minute debate dominated by a war that has claimed more
than 1,000 American lives, Kerry called the conflict a diversion in
the broader struggle against terror and the hunt for Osama bin
Laden.

The four-term Massachusetts senator said he could do a better
job than Bush of protecting the nation against another Sept.
11-style attack, and pledged to be strong and resolute in fighting
terrorism.

“But we also have to be smart … and smart means not
diverting our attention from the war on terror and taking it off to
Iraq,” Kerry said.

“This president, I don’t know if he really sees
what’s happening over there” in Iraq, Kerry said of
Bush, standing 10 feet away on a University of Miami debate
stage.

Bush swiftly returned to his theme of Kerry as a man who changes
his mind too often to be president.

“He voted to authorize the use of force and now says
it’s the wrong war at the wrong time. …. I don’t
think you can lead if you say wrong war, wrong time, wrong place.
What message does that send to our troops?” said the
Republican seeking a second term in the White House.

In Ann Arbor a debate-watching party sponsored by the Washtenaw
County Democratic Party, an estimated 600 people filled the Cavern
Club, a bar and restaurant on First Street, to view the event in
two overflowing rooms. Attendees in the club were exultant,
cheering raucously after Kerry’s responses and shouting
insults and laughing while Bush spoke.

Following the debate, patrons mocked Bush’s performance
and gushed about Kerry’s “forceful” demeanor.
Sean Duffy, a research fellow at the Institute for Social Research,
said Bush’s arguments revealed a “preoperational”
mindset.

“It was really interesting how childlike Bush came across
— his thinking seemed strictly concrete,” Duffy said.
“It was pretty clear that Kerry was more capable of abstract
though.”

College Republicans and Students for Bush wearing Bush/Cheney
T-shirts and carrying “Viva Bush” signs held a smaller
gathering at the Michigan Union to watch the candidates duke it
out. Cheers and applause followed the President’s one-liners
and quips at Kerry, as well as laughter each time the Massachusetts
senator claimed that he was resolute and did not take “flip
flop” stances on policies.

“John Kerry doesn’t know the meaning of the word
consistency,” said Engineering senior Christina Sammut,
relaying a sentiment that many in the crowd expressed.

“The debate really showed that Bush will not waver,”
LSA senior Michael Vasell said. “Kerry kind of flip-flopped.
We’ll see in the next debate if he will say the same thing he
said in this one.”

Vasell added that he enjoyed the focus on actual issues instead
of the more prevalent deliberation on Kerry’s Vietnam days or
Bush’s service in the National Guard.

Members of the audience, for the most part, agreed that Bush
emerged as the victor of the first debate by remaining calm,
confident and sticking to his beliefs.

President of College Republicans Allison Jacobs said she thought
Bush seemed comfortable behind the podium.

“He looked into the camera,” she said, alluding to
Kerry’s statements that were often directed only to the
moderator.

“Some people just tuned into the election with this debate
and they’re looking for that American image that Bush
portrayed,” she said.

Among the strong Republican presence at the event, there was at
least one person who thought Kerry was better.

“Kerry did an excellent job. He managed to sound
intelligent and down to earth at the same time,” LSA senior
Andrew Brieschke said. “I think in a general sense Bush did
better on the witty comments.”

He added that this wasn’t necessarily bad because
Bush’s support base loved this characteristic.

The debate unfolded less than five weeks before the election,
with polls showing Bush with a narrow lead and several battleground
states exceedingly close. Even some Democrats said the debate, with
a national television audience in the tens of millions, represented
Kerry’s best chance to gain late-campaign momentum.

Three post-debate polls suggested that voters’ first
impressions were good for Kerry, with most of those surveyed saying
he did better than Bush. Such instant polls reflect the views of
debate watchers and not the public at large. Initial reactions to a
debate can change after a few days have passed.

Both men used well-rehearsed lines during their face-to-face
encounter, but this was the first time each had to listen to the
criticism at close quarters.

Bush appeared perturbed when Kerry leveled some of his charges,
scowling at times and looking away in apparent disgust at others.
Kerry often took notes when the president spoke. Some networks
offered a split screen to viewers so they could see both men at the
same time and watch their reactions.

Bush and Kerry also differed over North Korea, Iran and Russia
in a debate limited to foreign policy and terrorism.

Kerry charged that North Korea and Iran both have advanced their
nuclear weapons programs during the Bush administration. “As
president I’ll never take my eye off that ball,” the
senator said.

Bush said he believed that a diplomatic initiative currently
under way could solve the crisis with North Korea. “On Iran,
I hope we can do the same,” the president said.

Bush said that with North Korea, he would continue to pursue a
strategy that involves the United States, China, Japan, Russia and
South Korea in talks with North Korea to defuse the problem. Kerry
advocated bilateral talks between the United States and North Korea
to find a solution.

Kerry voiced concerns about conditions in Russia, saying that
crackdowns initiated by President Vladimir Putin go beyond
what’s necessary to combat terror.

Bush said he had a good personal relationship with Putin that
“enables me to better comment to him and the better to
discuss with him some of the decisions he makes.” Bush said
Russia was a country in transition and that would remind Putin
“of the great benefits of democracy.”

Not long before Bush and Kerry strode on stage, U.S. and Iraqi
forces launched a major attack against insurgents in Samarra.

The U.S. command said government and police buildings had been
secured in the city.

The two men clashed time and again over Iraq and the broader war
on terror.

Kerry said he had a four-part plan to battle terrorists, and
said Bush’s could be summed up in four words —
“More of the same.”

“You cannot lead the war on terror if you keep changing
positions on the war on terror,” retorted the president.

Kerry appeared to taunt the commander in chief at one point
during the debate when he said his father, former President George
H.W. Bush, had stopped troops from advancing on Baghdad after they
had liberated Kuwait during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Now, he said, the son ordered an invasion of Iraq anyway,
without an exit strategy, and under conditions that mean the United
States has incurred “90 percent of the casualties and 90
percent of the cost.”

In response, Bush ridiculed his opponent, saying he denigrated
U.S. allies in the war, voted against an $87 billion measure to aid
Afghanistan and Iraq and sent mixed signals.

“What’s his message going to be? Please join us in
Iraq for a grand diversion?” Bush said to Kerry’s
contention that he could summon broader international support for
the war. “They’re not going to follow someone whose
core convictions keep changing because of politics.”

Kerry conceded a mistake on one point, but implied it paled next
to the one he accused Bush of making.

“You know, when I talked about the $87 billion, I made a
mistake in how I talk about the war. But the president made a
mistake in invading Iraq. Which is worse?

Kerry also said Bush erred when he defended the invasion of Iraq
by saying “The enemy attacked us.”

“Saddam Hussein didn’t attack us. Osama bin Laden
attacked us. Al-Qaida attacked us,” Kerry said.

Given the stakes, it was not surprising that the two campaigns
negotiated what amounted to a 32-page contract that covered debate
details.

They ranged from the choice of moderator (Jim Lehrer of PBS) to
the distance between the candidate lecterns (10 feet).

Even so, a last-minute controversy flared, as Kerry’s
aides objected to the placement of timing lights on the
lecterns.

 

 

Daily Staff Reporters Farayha Arrine and Donn Fresard
contributed to this report.

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